Growing Up Out of White Working-Class Pessimism: Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance

By Tom Gilson Published on August 30, 2018

My son and daughter-in-law were married in a former bank building in downtown Middletown, Ohio, last January. It was a beautiful venue — the bank had obviously had a spectacular history. And it was unique — the groomsmen’s dressing area was in one of the old vaults. The setting definitely contributed to making it a great day for us all.

But the fact that a formerly great downtown bank is now an event venue tells you something about the city. I’ve got family connections to some of the saddest cities in the country, including Flint, Michigan. But I don’t know of any as sad as Middletown — the main setting of J. D. Vance’s heart-rending Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.

He was just thirty-one years old when he wrote it. By then he’d decided there’s probably no real, complete solution to the problem of the white underclass. If there were, though, he’d say it would have a lot more to do with family than government.

Middletown, A Burned-Out Shell of Its Former Self

Like Vance, I’m a transplant to this part of the country, having lived the past six years in a home about 10 miles southeast of Middletown. There’s a whole lot of history here, though, I never knew before reading Hillbilly Elegy. Of course I knew Middletown was a burned-out shell of its former self. That was mostly due to multiple manufacturing plant closings, especially Armco Steel (later AK Steel, but everyone still calls it Armco). I knew that people say it’s ground zero for the country’s opioid crisis.

There’s probably no real, complete solution to the problem of the white underclass. If there were, though … it would have a lot more to do with family than government.

My daughter took most of her college classes at Miami University’s Middletown campus, walking distance from Vance’s boyhood home — or one of his homes, rather, the one where his mom lived. Ask my daughter about her Middletown friends, and she’d just return a look of compassionate sadness.

I knew all that. But I didn’t know this region was so much influenced by the Kentucky hills, or how its sadness is lived out in the lives of many.

Transplanted Hillbillies and Bad Habits

Armco recruited heavily in Kentucky a generation or so ago. Vance freely describes himself as a hillbilly — he can even name the relative who murdered one of the McCoys, kicking off the famous Hatfield-McCoy feud. He moved up this way as a young boy, along with his mom, sister, “Mamaw” and “Papaw” — all on account of Armco’s family recruiting incentives.

His dad wasn’t much in the picture until much later. His mom had a succession of husbands and boyfriends — and a bad habit besides, for she was hooked, first on prescription medicines, then other opioids. One of Vance’s most wrenching moments came when his mom asked him to give her a drug-free urine specimen she could take to work. She knew she’d be tested that day. He decided then as a high-schooler he was done taking care of his mom’s habit. Not that he could stick with that resolution forever.

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He was surrounded by bad habits, and not just hers. His life through high school was pock-marked with violence as he got tossed (or “escaped,” sometimes) from one home to another — his mom’s, his Mamaw’s, his Papaw’s, later even his “fundamentalist Christian” father’s home in nearby Miamisburg.

It wasn’t all negative. He adored (and still does) his big sister, and he has really fond memories of family in Kentucky. His Mamaw and Papaw pushed him to keep going through high school, and gave him some hint of the good that family can do a boy or a young man.

His mom and her live-ins taught him no such lesson.

Growing Up At Last

He never grew up, he says — and who could blame him? — until he took a long hard look at going to college, and decided the Marines offered a much better future. His four-year enlistment was certainly the right decision. The story tells much better from his first-person perspective than I can summarize it here, for it’s really quite impossible to avoid clichés. The Marines taught him discipline. They showed him he had much more in him than he’d dreamed. They even showed him how to balance his checkbook.

That set him on a course that landed him first at Ohio State University, then Yale Law School. Still a hillbilly (again, by his own proud admission), he had much more to learn at Yale. And it wasn’t just the law. He didn’t know he should wear a suit to a job interview. Then he had to learn that it ought to be a suit that fits. Most importantly, perhaps, he learned the value of getting the right help from the right people when he needed it. Folks couldn’t find that kind of help back in Middletown.

Putting White Working Class Pessimism Behind

He visited home just before starting law school. “I felt like an outsider in Middletown,” he says. “And what turned me into an alien was my optimism.” It’s rare enough there. Vance tells of a Pew Foundation study that discovered the “shocking” reality that “there is no group of Americans more pessimistic than working-class whites.”

There is no group of Americans more pessimistic than working-class whites.

He’s one of the few who had made it out of the hopelessness. It wasn’t because of the government, though. Not the media, and not other large institutions, either. At Yale it wasn’t so much the college, it was the one professor who took an interest in him. The Marines may seem the exception, but even there it was individuals who had the real impact on him.

The Difference a Home Can Make

Most of all, though, it was family, even as little as he had. “Growing up around a lot of single moms and dads and living in a place where most of your neighbors are poor really narrows the realm of possibilities,” he writes. “It means that unless you have a Mamaw and Papaw to make sure you stay the course, you might never make it out. It means that you don’t have people to show you by example what happens when you work hard and get an education.”

Or in simplest terms, “Any successful policy program would recognize what my old high school’s teachers see every day: that the real problem for so many of these kids is what happens (or doesn’t happen) at home.”

There may not be a solution to the pain of the white working class. Helping families build real home lives, though, would be a great place to start.


Tom Gilson is a senior editor with The Stream and the author of Critical Conversations: A Christian Parents’ Guide to Discussing Homosexuality with Teens (Kregel Publications, 2016). Follow him on Twitter: @TomGilsonAuthor.

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